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Biomass as an Alternative Source for Energy

The modern civilization is built around fossil fuels. Unfortunately, fossil fuel is a non-renewable resource and constant production of it to fulfill increasing energy and manufacturing processes causes depletion of its reserves. According to the Energy Commission, between 2010 until 2013, decreasing trends were observed for the production of natural gas and crude oil while renewable energy generations increased by 122%.

Hence, it is important to develop suitable alternative energy resources which are technically possible, economically competitive, environmentally acceptable, and readily available to counter the issue. These days, biomass utilization has gained much attention from scientists, industries, authorities, and societies as one of the promising renewable energy alternatives.

Malaysia is blessed with plenty of biomass resources

Biomass is defined as biological materials derived from living or recently living organisms. Biomass resources can be categorized into primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

Primary resources are created directly by photosynthesis process and are taken directly from the land. They consist of woody and herbaceous crops, the seeds of oil crops, and subsequent residues from agricultural crops and forest trees harvesting (e.g., corn stover, wheat straw, and the leaves, trunks, and bark parts from trees).

Secondary sources of biomass come from the processing of primary resources either chemically (e.g., black liquor from pulping industry), physically (e.g., production of wood chips and sawdust in mills), or biologically (e.g., manure waste by animals). Finally, tertiary resources are post-consumer residue streams including used vegetable oils, animal fats and greases, packaging trashes, as well as demolition and construction debris.

agricultural, plantation, and forestry industries create 70 million tonnes of biomass and residues annually

Energy generation and chemical derivation based on biomass utilization in Malaysia is showing a great potential due to its availability, renewability, and carbon neutrality. Malaysia is blessed with plenty of biomass resources across Peninsular, Sabah, and Sarawak. There are many biomass types from agricultural, plantation, and forestry industries, which create approximately 70 million tonnes of biomass and residues annually.

Additionally, wastes generated from industrial activity, municipal solid, and animals also contribute to the abundance of biomass in Malaysia. Recognizing its prospects, Malaysia launched the National Biomass Strategy 2020 (Malaysia Innovation Agency, 2013). This initiative is an extensive collaboration between the Malaysian Government and the private sector, as well as domestic and international research institutes and academia to encourage bio-energy and bio-chemical generation from biomass utilization. The plan is also aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emission as well as creating more job opportunities.

There are a number of existing processes for biomass conversion such as combustion, pyrolysis, gasification, fermentation, hydrolysis, and trans-esterification. These options can serve many different energy needs, from large scale industrial applications to small scale and rural end-uses. These methods vary in terms of reaction temperature, time, and pressure as well as reactant and reactor types. Different techniques could be used for diverse kind of biomass feedstock and produce different types, amount, and composition of products.

With a range of suitable conversion technologies, biomass can be transformed into solid, liquid, and/or gas fuels and also as a precursor to high value products. Liquid fuels can be used by vehicles on existing road, railroad, and aviation transportation,  as well as for engine and turbine electrical power generators. Solid and gaseous fuels can be used for the production of electrical power from direct purpose-designed systems or indirect turbine-equipped power plants. Moreover, chemical products can be acquired from many organic compositions in biomass.

With a range of suitable conversion technologies, biomass can be transformed into fuels

An emerging concept for the optimization of biomass utilization is biorefineries. A biorefinery is a facility that integrates biomass conversion processes and equipment to produce energy (fuels, power, heat) and value-added chemicals from a spectrum of bio-based products (food, feed, materials, waste).

The biorefinery concept is comparable to the current petroleum refinery, which produces multiple fuels and products from fossil fuel. A biorefinery takes advantage of various components in biomass and their intermediates to produce several products, thus maximizing the value derived from biomass feedstock. A biorefinery could, for instance, produce one or several low-volume but high-value chemical products or a low-value but high-volume liquid transportation fuel such as biodiesel or bioethanol.


At the same time, it can generate electricity and process heat, through a combined heat and power (CHP) technology, for its own use and possibly for sale of electricity to the local utility. The high-value products enhance profitability, the high-volume fuel supports the energy needs, and the power production helps to supplement energy supply and reduce GHG emissions from conventional power plant facilities.

Universiti Teknologi Petronas (UTP) has set up a Centre for Biofuel and Biochemical Research (CBBR) on its campus on February 2011. CBBR aims to be a key member of a global alliance of top biomass utilization centres from the academia and industry in Asia. CBBR also develops talented researchers and engineers to become top biomass experts by making available state-of-the-art facilities for research. They have published many papers in high-impact journals and conference proceedings as well as jointly developed technology with the industry.

Under its biomass processing laboratory and research cluster, biomass-plant based residue such as palm based, paddy, rubber plantation as well as plastic and industrial waste are processed to be converted into liquid fuels –  for instance ethanol, biodiesel, gasoline, and also gaseous fuels, such as hydrogen, syngas, and methane. One of our research collaborations is with Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) regarding utilization of bottom ash as a catalyst for biomass steam gasification.

Bottom ash is a solid waste from combustion process of coal power plant. Based on the elemental characterization of bottom ash, it contains several compounds such as SiO2, Fe2O3, CaO, and Al2O3 that possess catalytic activity and can be used in catalytic biomass gasification to generate gaseous products such as hydrogen, methane, and syngas. This research proved that the bottom ash has catalytic effect in the biomass gasification process and improved the hydrogen and syngas composition in the product gas. Ultimately, this could mean a reduction in waste disposal, and also an increase the value-add of bottom ash.

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